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Reflections of Canada's 'Cultural Genocide'

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Mike Pinay

For her project "Signs of Your Identity," photographer Daniella Zalcman juxtaposed her subjects against the former residential schools they once attended in Saskatchewan. In 2008, the Canadian government apologized for the residential school system, which a commission officially labeled "cultural genocide" last year. "It was the worst 10 years of my life," said Mike Pinay, pictured against the residential school he attended from 1953 to 1963. "I was away from my family from the age of 6 to 16. How do you learn about family? I didn't know what love was. We weren't even known by names back then. I was a number." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Rick Pelletier

Like Pinay, Rick Pelletier attended the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School. "My parents came to visit, and I told them I was being beaten," Pelletier told Zalcman. "My teachers said that I had an active imagination, so they didn't believe me at first. But after summer break they tried to take me back, and I cried and cried and cried. I ran away the first night, and when my grandparents went to take me back, I told them I'd keep running away, that I'd walk back to Regina if I had to. They believed me then." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Marcel Ellery

"I ran away 27 times," said Marcel Ellery, who attended the Marieval Indian Residential School from 1987-1990. "But the (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) always found us eventually. When I got out, I turned to booze because of the abuse. I drank to suppress what had happened to me, to deal with my anger, to deal with my pain, to forget. Ending up in jail was easy, because I'd already been there." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Stuart Bitternose

"After I'd had enough of that place, one day I jumped the 8-foot-high fence and I took off down the highway," said Stuart Bitternose, who attended the Gordon Indian Residential School from 1946-1954. "I found a farm, and I asked if I could work, and I stayed there for two and a half years on a salary of a dollar a day. I told the farmer I'd run away (from residential school), and he said he didn't care—and if anyone came looking for me he'd chase them off for trespassing. He saved me." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Deedee Lerat

"When I was 8, Mormons swept across Saskatchewan. So I was taken out of residential school and sent to a Mormon foster home for five years," said Deedee Lerat. "I've been told I'm going to hell so many times and in so many ways. Now I'm just scared of God." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Kevin Jimmy Sayer

"I've spent half my life incarcerated, and I blame residential school for that," Jimmy Kevin Sayer said. "But I also know I have to give up my hate because I'm responsible for myself. I have three adult daughters, and I was in jail for the duration of their childhoods. I have a 2-year-old son now, and I need to be there for him. I have to be different." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Valerie Ewenin

"I was brought up believing in the nature ways, burning sweetgrass, speaking Cree. And then I went to residential school and all that was taken away from me," Valerie Ewenin said. "And then later on I forgot it, too, and that was even worse." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Angela Rose

"I used to be able to speak my language when I was little. But now, because of residential school, I only know how to say hello and count to 10," Angela Rose said. "I turn on the native radio station, and I just like to sit and listen. I can't understand what they're saying, but everyone once in a while a word will pop out at me and it'll jog some small memory. I've lost a lot of things, but I think that's one of the ones I miss most." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

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Joseph Gordon Edechanchyonce

"It's hard for me to really love my children," said Joseph Gordon Edechanchyonce. "I grapple with the word 'love.' By the time I got out of school, I'd started drinking heavily. I went to a center for alcohol abuse and it was like a prison, but it felt like home. I knew how to live in that environment. ... I got caught in the wrong place and time in history. I don't think we can ever heal from this. We're just going to have to die with all the pain." Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

When Daniella Zalcman visited Canada for the first time in 2014, she was shocked by the poverty and desperation she witnessed in parts of Saskatchewan's indigenous community.
The photographer captured scenes of neglected homes against stark, rolling landscapes, and she encountered weary individuals ravaged by alcoholism and addiction.

Nearly everyone she spoke to passed through the residential school system, a dark chapter in Canadian history that was the government's form of cultural assimilation. The government-funded, church-run schools, which started in the 1870s, attempted "to kill the Indian in the child." More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were taken from their families and placed in schools across the country, where they were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing their culture.

The schools began closing in the 1980s, and the last school closed in 1996 amid reports of sexual and physical abuse. The Canadian government made its first formal apology for the residential school system in 2008, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission officially labeled it "cultural genocide" in 2015.

"They created a new way of subjugating and marginalizing people; they were essentially trying to wipe out the indigenous community," Zalcman said.

As she dug deeper into the history of these schools and listened to people's stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, she realized her photographs barely scratched the surface. She returned to Saskatchewan last year and spent three more weeks taking portraits.

Images from the two trips culminated in "Signs of Your Identity," winner of the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award. The title references the formal apology from the Anglican Church, which operated many of the residential schools along with the Catholic Church: "I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity," Archbishop Michael Peers said in 1993 (PDF).

For her project, Zalcman used double-exposure portraits, juxtaposing people against sites of the former schools to create meditations on memory and the psychological legacy of the schools.

The idea came about while Zalcman was at an AIDS conference in Australia, another country that has gone through the truth and reconciliation process with its indigenous community. She was stunned to learn that Canada's First Nations people had one of the highest-growing rates of HIV in the world, despite the country's reputation for pioneering needle exchanges and other harm-reduction strategies.

"I believe these public health crises that the First Nations community is facing now is the direct result of the legacy of these residential schools," she said.

Most of the 45 people she spoke to attended two schools in Saskatchewan from the 1950s and 1970s, a documented period of intense sexual and physical abuse. Students at George Gordon First Nation, north of Regina, were sexually abused for decades.

Other subjects attended Beauval Indian Residential School in Battleford, where at least one person has been held accountable for numerous instances of sexual abuse.

Zalcman was astounded by their vivid memories, as if they'd been waiting to tell their stories. She felt ashamed that their stories had been excluded from the history books.

"When we collectively think about the awful things done to the Native American, we talk about things that happened hundreds of years ago," she said.

"This is modern history."

This article was written by CNN's Emanuella Grinberg.

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